Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Volcano- the One & Only

Hamletmachine

Volcano , Volcano Building, Swansea , November-21-19
Hamletmachine by Volcano “Hamletmachine”, the last theatre of the year before the Christmas cluster, is a resolution-breaker. Resolutions are there to be firm, but a little elastic too. The resolution for 2019 was to travel no more to theatre outside my own patch. But Volcano is Volcano, the former Iceland building is two minutes from Swansea station and I have never seen a Heiner Müller play.

Nor have many in Britain. Moving Being, a company from time past, once performed Müller in a church in Cardiff. He has been little seen elsewhere in Britain. Volcano has a firm footprint in the traditions of theatre of Europe. Director Paul Davies says that “Hamletmachine” has been a kind of Sisyphean rock for him for years. He is of a maturity to have experienced the German Democratic Republic direct. That it appears in a time when radio and TV have been thick with 30-year commemorations of the implosion of the Republic is coincidence. Davies: “I don't do anniversaries.”

Davies was in Jena, a town rich in literary association: Schiller, Hoelderlin, also Johannes R Becher. It was Becher who was given first overlordship of the arts by the regime in 1949 and established its conservatism. Müller's modernism earned him its antagonism and his banning from its Writers' Association in 1961. From then on his work was performed in the West, the licensing a source of hard currency for the government.

"Die Hamletmaschine" was banned and declared decadent, anti-humanistic and pessimistic. Eventually fame led to his admission to the DDR Academy of Arts in 1984. Georg Dreyman, the playwright in the film “the Lives of Others”, occupies a position that is similar.

Formally, the two hours of the peripatetic production comprises three exits on to the High Street, a walk up the side passage and three entries via the rear, the former supermarket loading bay. En route the first time, a short introduction is given about the time of the play. In 1979 the Wall stands, Ulrike Meinhof and her collaborators are dead.

The loading bay is lit in red, the carpet is red, and the four actors are in red tracksuits, tops and scarves. Gloves and trainers are in pristine white. A table holds four hundred red cola cans. Cola, and Mercedes, were the twin icons of consumerism of the era. Billy Wilder, in the year that the Wall went up, bizarrely made a Cold War comedy. Cagney in the lead of “One, Two, Three” played a soft drink executive.

The script's place in history is established. The opening lines remember Dunkirk, the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. Mention of that alone would have been incendiary in the arts of the DDR. Metatheatre is quickly established. The actors touch their spectators, look into their eyes in close proximity. There is disorientation, audience members being asked questions in German.

Three of the company sit down in separate corners. We expect action from actors, says the fourth. “They're not doing anything” she says. “The bastards. Do something!”

A company member afterwards talks of this strand of theatre as “not being a slave to its own narrative. Make of it what you will.” Its visual impact ignites association. The motif of red links to the Red Army Faction. Later it was to be revealed that Stasi money had flowed into their networks. The tracksuits in red may be metaphor; the state was unique in laying waste with drugs the bodies of its young people in its attainment of sporting glory. A quartet of barking dogs suggest the attack animals that patrolled the perimeters. The company ends pressed against concrete, then imprisoned in polythene.

The script has elements designed to appal with an undercurrent of coprophilia. It loops in return to Hamlet and Ophelia. Davies' production also incorporates a high visual surprise- not on the scale of a lake this time- but still arresting.

The credits for “Hamletmachine” are many. Cecilia Crossland, Christopher Elson, Mairi Phillips and Manon Wilkinson are the actors. Catherine Bennet is movement director. Design is by Guðný Hrund Sigurðardóttir, also design deputy and wallpaper designer Bourdon Brindille, technical manager Rich Andrew, costume Amy Barrett, carpentry Eifion Porter, production assistant Jenny Alderton.

The company's capacious building occupies different levels. The passage of the audience between levels is swiftened with a mechanism that must be a theatre first.

It is very Volcano.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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